Pyramid of Nohuch Mul, Cobá, Quintana Roo

7 Fascinating Maya Ruins in Quintana Roo To Explore

Maya ruins in Quintana Roo include well-known sites like Tulum and Coba, a few lesser-known, like Chunyaxche, or Kohunlich, and others still hidden in the jungle, like Kinichna and Dzibanche. But no matter how busy or quiet they get, they are all worth a visit – for different reasons.

Over the past three decades, I explored them often, and got to know some of them intimately. I’ve also witnessed changes in these archaeological sites.

Most of them grew as tourist sites, a deterrent for me in some cases – I haven’t visited Tulum in years. But I also saw new structures being unearthed, excavated or reconstructed, which I always enjoy.

But no matter if I like or dislike the changes, I always enjoy visiting these ancient Maya ruins in Quintana Roo and the rest of the Yucatan peninsula and Mexico.

Best Time to Visit Maya Ruins and Archaeological Sites in Quintana Roo

When it comes to weather, you can’t beat winter for visiting Maya ruins in Quintana Roo. Since the water is too cold to swim, this time of the year you don’t visit the state for its beaches. Instead, winter offers the perfect weather to visit the ancient ruins and archaeological sites.

Early spring is also a good time to visit Quintana Roo, although by April it starts to get hot. This is a good time to visit the state for its beaches and cenotes. Still, you can spend time visiting some ruins, especially those close to a body of water.

Fall is also a good time to visit; but I like to stay away from the state in the summer. High temperatures and high humidity are a combination I don’t like. Though plenty of people visit the state in the summer, since this is the time for the beach vacations.

Maya Ruins to Visit in Quintana Roo

As I mentioned earlier, Quintana Roo is home to some of the most spectacular and best-known Maya ruins. You’ll find the famous Tulum here, the most visited Maya site in the world. Quintana Roo is also home of Cobá, known as the home for the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group.

I’ve been visiting them for almost three decades, and still can’t get tired of them. To be honest, over time, as they become more and more crowded, I started avoiding a few. But if it’s your first time, I would suggest, you visit even Tulum, as busy as it gets.

After almost three decades of visiting Maya archaeological sites in Quintana Roo, the following are the best ones I recommend.

Instead of using their size and importance, I organized the list by the sites’ proximity to Cancun and the ease of visiting them from the airport.

1. Xel-Ha Ruins

The Pyramid of the Birds at Xel-Ha Ruins, Quintana Roo
The Pyramid of the Birds, near the highway, in the ancient ruins of Xel-Há

Not to be confused with the amusement park in Xel-Ha Lagoon, the ancient Maya ruins of Xel-Ha sit right on the highway. You can actually see one of its structures if you know where to look. You’ll find the site as you drive from Cancun down the coast towards Tulum.

A relatively small site, Xel-Ha Archaeological Site features a few ancient structures. They date from between 300-600, though the ancient Maya used the city until the 1100s. You’ll find pathways in the shade of tall trees, ancient structures excavated or overgrown by vegetation, and a crystal-clear cenote.

The Cenote

The cenote at the site is not for bathing though; extremely deep, with steep banks, it offers a nice place to sit along its banks, especially if you enjoy birdwatching. If you didn’t before, you might start here, as you watch and listen to the birds surrounding you. I often see in the area a variety of bluebirds. At least I thought they were bluebirds, until I read a sign introducing them as crows. Blue crows. They are beautiful. They are also the reason I like to say that on the Yucatan peninsula even the crows are colorful.

The House of the Jaguar

Near the cenote you’ll find the House of the Jaguar. A small temple, the structure owes its name to a painting depicting a jaguar on its wall, with the color still visible. Since you can no longer enter the temple, the painting is hard to see. But if you are there at the right time, look through the mesh covering the entrance. When the sun shines through it at the right angle, you can still see and recognize the painting.

Regardless of the painting though, the small structure and its surrounding makes a great stop.

The Pyramid of the Birds

The largest pyramid at the site is the one visible from the highway, being one of the easiest to access of the pyramids in Quintana Roo. Called the Pyramid of the Birds for a large fresco of birds still visible on its walls, it lays near the fence separating Xel-Ha Ruins from the highway.

A short walk from the entrance, you can still climb parts of it. You can get relatively close to the paintings of colorful birds that gave the structure its name.

The Castillo Group

The largest structure at the site is the Castillo Group. Comprising a maze of rooms, you can walk throughthe one-story structure.

2. Cobá

The largest Maya archaeological site in Quintana Roo, Cobá, is my favorite in the state. Home to the Nohuch Mul pyramid, the tallest pyramid in Quintana Roo and on the whole peninsula, Cobá lays inland, in the jungle, surrounded by five lagoons.

Walking towards the site, you might see crocodiles poking their heads out Lake Cobá. And even before you explore the ancient city, you can explore a modern-day Maya town. Besides the town, you are only a short drive from three underground cenotes. No wonder the ruins have become extremely popular.

Visiting just the archaeological site of Cobá can take you anywhere from a few hours to a whole day. We usually like to spend a full day at the ruins, as we make our way through the different groups.

Since distances are large, we take the time to walk through the jungle path. But you can also rent a bicycle, or hire a “Maya taxi”, a bicycle fitted with seats in front. Regardless of walking, riding or being driven, you get to explore a few different groups of structures.

The Iglesia and the Entrance Group

The first structure you notice as you enter the site is a large pyramid they call La Iglesia, the church. Though you can’t climb it, you can walk up several steps, and explore its surroundings.

The Ballcourt

Walking past the Iglesia, you reach the best-preserved, or reconstructed ball court at the site. Though not very large by Chichen Itza standards, the rings and the ball court markers are spectacular. Near it, a large, well-preserved stela lays protected under a mesh.

Past the ball court you’ll start on the long path under the jungle canopy. This main path takes you to the pyramid of Nohuch Mul and to other structures in the jungle.

Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul Group

The Ixmoja Pyramid, also known as Nohuch Mul in Coba
The Ixmoja pyramid, also known as Nohuch Mul (after the group it is in), in Cobá.

The tallest pyramid excavated so far on the Yucatan peninsula, the Ixmoja in the Nohuch Mul group, sits in a clearing, surrounded by jungle. In the last few years, it was getting crowded; everyone was climbing it. For good reason. The climb to the top, even if it seemed hard, was well worth it.

Not as steep as some of the other Maya pyramids, the climb seems harder than it really is. However, the stairs are eroded in most parts, making it easy to slip. During one of our latest trips we watched someone tumble down a few steps to the bottom. Luckily, he was ok – as much as possible, considering he tumbled down several rock stairs. At least they didn’t need to bring an ambulance, but it was a scary sight.

However, it took a pandemic to shut down the pyramid to climbers. Since 2020 you can no longer climb the tallest pyramid on the peninsula. You can still enjoy it from the bottom, while exploring a few small stelae surrounding the pyramid.

Grupo Macanxoc, a Forest of Ancient Stelae

Stela in the Macanxoc Group in Coba
Stela in the Macanxoc Group

Ancient Maya stelae are stone slabs filled with writing; history written in stone. Unfortunately, even stone erodes over time in the jungle. This is especially true for sandstone, or limestone the ancient Maya used for their monuments.

In Cobá most of the stelae are badly eroded. However, the ones that stand are spectacular. And, if you know what you are looking for, you can make out the images, if not always the glyphs.

This area of the site has always been my favorite, mostly because I can spend hours trying to “read” the ancient history. But also because it is the quietest place in an otherwise busy site. Out of the way, past Nohuch Mul, with no major structures here, few visitors even go back there. You can’t ride a bicycle in there, either. This makes it inconvenient for those who like to rush through the site.

Even the few visitors who actually walk through this group, don’t linger. So that leaves the area quiet for those of us who love to hang out with the ancient stones in the jungle.

3. Tulum

Tulum Castillo in 1995
The Castillo in Tulum (photo taken in 1995)

Driving farther south, you’ll reach Tulum, the most visited ancient Maya site not only in Quintana Roo, but everywhere. It is a site we’ve been skipping in the past decade. Last time I visited, the changes I noticed between our earlier visits when it was still relatively unknown, left me wishing I didn’t return. So, I haven’t been back since. But I thought I’d mention it anyway, because the combination of ancient structures on the beach make a gorgeous setting. So, if you’ve never been, or you don’t mind crowds, visit the site.

Perched on a cliff above the beach, the Castillo of Tulum, though not large, still offers the most beautiful view of the pyramids in Quintana Roo. And if you imagine its view from the ocean, you’d understand why anyone who sailed to the coast would have wanted to land there.

The only ancient Maya city built right on the beach, the structures of Tulum date from 1200-1450. The site was one of the few cities still inhabited when the Spaniards landed on the peninsula.

4. Muyil, also known as Chunyaxché

Driving farther down the coast, you’ll reach the archaeological site of Muyil, or Chunyaxché. Set in the jungle, the ancient ruins are part of the Sian Ka’an Nature Preserve.

This site offers a different environment, and beautiful structures. Walking through the pyramids in the jungle offers more of an adventure, and the site is – or at least was last time I visited – still relatively quiet, with few visitors.

The Castillo

The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
The Main Pyramid, Castillo, at Muyil Ruins

After walking through the Entrance Group, stop at the Castillo. Dominating the front plaza, the stunning pyramid is visible as soon as you enter the site.

The Castillo of Muyil is unique among the ancient Maya pyramids in Quintana Roo. Built in terraces, with rounded corners, it looks like a Classic Maya structure. And the looks are not deceiving. The pyramid is indeed much older than the ones of both Tulum and Xel-Ha, the other two on the coast.

Structures through the Jungle

As you walk through the jungle path, you’ll find other structures, mostly covered by vegetation. One of them worth a stop is the small Temple 8 and its surrounding plaza.

Path through Sian Ka’an to the Lagoon

After exploring the ancient structures, walk down the jungle path to the lagoon. This might be the highlight of your trip here, as you are most likely to encounter small animals, and enjoy the lush tropical forest.

Along the path, a lookout tower, a “Mirador”, offers a scenic look at the surroundings from above the canopy.

5. Chacchoben

The ruins in Southern Quintana Roo are less visited than their northern counterparts. However, Chacchoben is an exception, since it is close to the port town of Mahahuatl, where the cruise ships dock. A side trip to the ruins of Chaccchoben is part of many cruises, so the site might is usually overrun by tourists. In fact, in 2024 it is one of the most visited Maya sites on the peninsula.

Opened in recent years, in 2002, it is a site I only visited a few times. It is larger than I expected, featuring a few pyramids that reminded me a bit of Cobá.

You’ll find a few large pyramids in main plaza the site, surrounded by manicured lawns and well-kept trails.

6. Kinichná and Dzibanché

Two adjacent sites, in the middle of the jungle, Kinichna and Dzibanche are far from the beaten track. We visited them a few times, and were always alone at the ruins. However, during out last visit, in January of 2024, we noticed a huge area cleared and paved for a parking lot, and we met lots of workers at the site, cutting new trails, and clearing the vegetation.

Both sites feature several tall pyramids you can climb, and adding the fact that you are most likely alone there – at least for now – , you can feel like a true explorer.

7. Kohunlich

One of the largest sites in southern Quintana Roo, Kohunlich is surrounded by a forest of palm trees. Unusual for Maya archaeological sites, they were part of a plantation. The site comprises over two hundred structures, though very few are excavated. Still, you can spend a few hours at this site. After a walk through the palm trees, you’ll reach the first structures.

The Northwest Group features several structures surrounding a central plaza, and past it, you’ll find he Acropolis. Walk through the chambers, and the platform of the Acropolis surrounding an interior courtyard.

South of the Acropolis you’ll find the Plaza of the Stelae, named for the three stelae standing on the Palace of the Stelae on the east side of the plaza. You’ll find more plazas, and groups of interconnected rooms or chambers to explore here. Eventually, you’ll see the short path leading to the Temple of the Masks.

The Temple of the Masks

Kohunlich. The Temple of the Masks
Kohunlich. One of the masks in the Temple of the Masks

The most famous structure at the site, the structure Kohunlich is known for, the Temple of the Masks features a series of large masks. One of the oldest structures at the site, the short pyramid-temple sits alone, away from the rest of the excavated structures.

Though not the largest, it is the structure you have to see if you visit Kohunlich. Walk up on the central stairway flanked by gorgeous, six feet tall, masks of the Sun God. You’ll see five of the original eight masks as you walk up the stairs.

If you can’t go to this site, you can visit Kohunlich virtually now; one of the few sites where this is possible.

Why Maya (and not Mayan) Ruins?

Though it may seem that used as an adjective, the correct version would be Mayan (and even I used it the same way before), the actual correct way is to call the ruins and archaeological sites, Maya ruins and Maya sites, not Mayan.

Scholars use “Mayan” to denote most of the languages used by the Maya people, and “Maya” for everything else. This means that Maya is used as a singular and plural noun, and as an adjective unless referring to one of the 30 family of languages spoken by the Maya (outside of Yucatan). Except one language: the Maya who live on the Yucatan peninsula and speak Yucatec Maya call their language “Maya”, so that’s how we should also refer to it.

So, for the most part, in just about every instance the correct term is Maya, especially in Quintana Roo (and the rest of Yucatan). Outside of this area, the language may be referred to as Mayan, but the people, culture, food, and identity is Maya.

Source: Na’Atik Language and Culture Institute

Beaches and Cenotes in Quintana Roo

Besides the ancient Maya ruins, Quintana Roo is known for its gorgeous, white-sand beaches and its crystal-clear cenotes.

Though beaches are all free in Mexico, including Quintana Roo, unfortunately the large resorts built on the shore make finding access to these beaches difficult at times. An easy place to find a beach is the town of Puerto Morelos. Here, you have access to the beach right from the zocalo, the center of town, and from there, walk up and down as far as you like.

If you drive slow on the coast highway, you’ll also find several dirt roads leading to public beaches.

You’ll find cenotes along the roads, and usually can access them for a small fee. Though some of them are built up for tourists, try to stop at smaller ones, owned by locals for a better experience, and to feel like a true explorer.

In a Nutshell About the Best Maya Ruins in Quintana Roo

  1. Tulum

    Tulum, with its spectacular Castillo perched on a cliff above the beach, is the best-known and most visited of the ancient Maya archaeological sites in Mexico. It is also the only ancient Maya settlement located on the beach, and also the only walled city of the Maya known at this time.

  2. Cobá (Kobá)

    Cobá is the largest and oldest ancient Maya archaeological site in the state of Quintana Roo, home to the famous Nohuch Mul, the tallest known pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula. Besides the famous Nohuch Mul pyramid, you’ll find other significant structures along the pathways through the jungle, including two ball courts, the Castillo, several smaller pyramids, and a group of stelae.

  3. Chunyaxché (Muyil)

    In a jungle setting on the coast south of Tulum, the site of Chunyaxche, also known as Muyil, is dominated by its gorgeous Castillo. Reconstructed, the pyramid stands tall in the center of the Main Plaza, surrounded by jungle. Since the site is in the Sian Ka’an Nature preserve, it offers a trail through the jungle out to a lagoon.

  4. Kohunlich

    Home to the famous Temple of the Masks, Kohunlich is surrounded by a forest of palm trees. One of the largest sites in Southern Quintana Roo, it features over two hundred structures, though most unexcavated.

  5. Chacchoben

    Featuring a few large pyramids in the main plaza, and several other structures, Chacchoben is one of the larger sites in Southern Quintana Roo. A popular site, it gets busiest when the crusei ships dock in Mahuatl.

  6. Kinichna & Dzibanche

    Two adjacent sites in the jungle, still off the beaten track, featuring several large pyramids, and other structures along a jungle path.

  7. Xel-Ha Ruins

    The easies to access from the road, the entrance to Xel-Ha Ruins is right on the highway from Cancun to Tulum. A relatively small site, Xel-Ha Archaeological Site features a few ancient structures, dating from between 300-600, shaded pathways and a crystal-clear cenote.

  8. Maya vs Mayan What’s the difference? Why is Maya Ruins the correct phrase?

    According to the Na’Atik Language and Culture Institute, the correct way to refer to the archaeological sites, ruins, pyramids built by the Ancient Maya is Maya ruins/archaeological sites/cities, etc. Even though it is used as an adjective, the correct form in this case is Maya.
    Scholars refer to the languages used by indigenous Maya people as Mayan languages. In every other instance, the correct word to use is Maya.

About the author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

2 thoughts on “7 Fascinating Maya Ruins in Quintana Roo To Explore”

  1. Lauren Montgomery

    Do you know much about Palenque and Bonampale and Yaxchitlan? Any thoughts on The merits of visiting them? Heading to Merida this weekend…

    1. Hi Lauren, Yes, if you like the ancient Maya sites, Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilan are all worth a visit; depending on how long you are in Mexico. They are all a bit far from Merida. I wrote about all three, you can find my articles if you go to archeaology/ancient Maya sites; or just type in the site names in the search. They are some of my very favorites. Enjoy your trip! Merida is beautiful this time of the year. 🙂 (sorry I only saw your comment now, I’ve been out of town with no internet access for a few days)

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